World travel was once a taxing affair. Beyond the hoary old Grand Tour destinations of Europe, an adventurer needed tycoon cash or brass genitalia of Indiana Jones grade. These days, though, destinations go from obscurity to New York Times features in a matter of years, if not months. If you've been even part of the backpacking youth subspecies that acts as tourism's shock troops, you know the Lonely Planet series is as much a catalyst for travel's transformation as anything. The paperback guidebooks affect the neurosystems of impressionable Western twentysomethings like some kind of confidence-boosting pharmaceutical. They're as essential to the grid-skipping scene as cheapskate Australians and Canadians with maple-leaf flags sewn on their packs.
LP has never been my personal brand (somehow, it evokes patchouli), but company founder Tony Wheeler would make any shortlist of charter inductees to a Global Travel Hall of Fame. The guy has been everywhere, and he's helped others go. Wheeler, who started his company in the '70s with his equally indefatigable wife, Maureen, is in town next week to talk about two new books: one recounting "the Lonely Planet story" and the other, more intriguingly, his personal travelogue through places where tourism is still an unabashed contact sport.
Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil (Lonely Planet, 327 pages, $14.99) recounts a few jaunts through North Korea, Iraq (at least the semi-stable Kurdish zone), Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. The tale feels like running into a salty old hand at an expat bar in Singapore after he's had three man-sized gin and tonics. (Not a bad thing.) Wheeler rambles, repeats himself and never misses a chance to talk up Lonely Planet. But you have to like a book that contains this sentence: "'You guys really are the axis of evil,' our guide splutters over his stein of beer in the Pyongyang duck restaurant." And you can't help but think that America would be better off if Wheeler's sense of adventure, easygoing good sense and determination to find fun, humor and something cold to drink wherever he goes could be implanted in every citizen.